A Legacy of Refining Stand Hunting

Tree stand hunting made its reputation as a superior way to hunt whitetails during the 1980s and 1990’s. It even revolutionized archery hunting, making it a highly successful and popular way to hunt deer. Back then, all my hunting partners and I had to do for each of us to see as many as twenty whitetails up close per day during the first days of a hunting season was construct or attach a commercially-made tree stand to a tree trunk 6–9 feet above the ground near a trail well-tracked by deer without regard for wind direction or silhouette-hiding cover. At that height, we were invisible to whitetails. They couldn’t even smell us, or so it seemed. Tree stand hunting enabled us to become selective, hunting mature bucks only. By 1989, however, we were beginning to realize mature whitetails were learning to identify and avoid hunters in trees, especially older bucks. To counter this change, growing more and more obvious nationwide, stand hunters began climbing higher, wear camouflage clothing, cover the bright skin of their faces with camo paints, dust or masks and wear gloves, use products claimed to eliminate human odors and use so-called “buck lures.” While I was creating the 12-hour video series entitled, “Whitetail Hunters World” in 1885-86, more than 90% of the many wild bucks my partner and I video-taped were attracted to our tree stands by urine collected from does in heat. Soon after that, practically every deer hunter in America was using a portable tree stand and doe urine or another buck lure. As a result, during the following two decades almost every surviving mature whitetail in America, especially every buck 3-1/2 years of age or older, had become adept at identifying and avoiding hunters using tree stands and buck lures.

Meanwhile, being anxious to restore the buck hunting success we experienced during the 70s and 80s, my three sons and I began experimenting with a great variety of new stand hunting tactics, basing any improvements they provided, if any, on numbers of mature, unsuspecting bucks seen within 100 yards or less. Beginning in 1990, it didn’t take long to realize our occasional observations of gray wolves hunting deer or seemingly not hunting deer and responses of nearby deer in either case had great potential value in our quest to discover a more productive way to hunt older bucks. In time, we developed six mature-buck-effective stand hunting methods that provide regular hunting success, culminating with the most complex and productive of them all, “opportunistic stand hunting,” This hunting method incorporates the ruse regularly used by our wolves while searching for and selecting vulnerable prey—acting as if totally uninterested in deer. Learning to use this ruse (plus certain precautions) not only made it possible for us to hike to stand sites without seriously alarming deer along the way, but also made it possible to scout for fresh signs made by mature bucks and other deer (along certain limited trails) midday daily throughout a hunting season without causing ruinous whitetail range abandonment. Each of our six new stand hunting methods effectively counters the ability of today’s mature bucks to quickly identify and begin avoiding hunters using stand sites. Each also keeps us close to trails and sites currently frequented by mature bucks every day we hunt. No other hunting method regularly provides these great advantages.

Something Mice and Whitetails have in Common

One evening two weeks ago, while working late on a writing assignment at my kitchen table, I finally caught the long-tailed house mouse that had been living in the works of my refrigerator with a plastic trap baited with peanut butter.  The trouble was, though it’s head was inside the trap, it didn’t die. After annoyingly pushing the trap around my kitchen floor for about ten minutes, I decided to get up and end its life by stepping down on the trap to apply fatal pressure to its neck. Instead, I inadvertently released the mouse and quick as a wink, it ducked under my refrigerator. Now it won’t touch a mousetrap, proving even a mouse knows better than make the same mistake twice.

The trouble with using baits to attract whitetails to stand sites is, whitetails are smarter than mice. Once a mature whitetail (2-1/2 years of age or older) discovers a potentially dangerous human via sight, hearing or smell guarding a site baited with doe-in-heat pheromone, tarsal musk, clover, turnips, corn, apples, something with protein in it, mineral blocks, salt blocks or sounds that attempt to imitate doe bleats, buck grunts or battling bucks and survives the discovery, it will thereafter avoid that site while a readily recognized hunting season is in progress, at least during daylight hours when hunters are normally afoot.

Only Two and a Half Months Left

If you are a whitetail hunter, you know what’s on my mind. Last November, I made a page-long list of things I need to do before our next deer hunting season begins. At the top of the list is a number of jobs that definitely can’t wait until the last minute. Scouting four new stand hunting areas 20 or more acres in size in my hunting area is one. None have been hunted in 10–30 years. If I find deer signs in these areas made by mature bucks, which is almost certain, my next job will be to select two or more mature-buck-effective stand sites and approach trails (deer trails) in each area for different wind directions. This kind of work will take 2–3 trips north and must be finished at least three weeks before opening day. I’m really looking forward to getting started because well-chosen, never-used stand sites are by far the most productive for hunting mature, stand-smart bucks. Another task I have been intending to do for two years is use fabric paint to make my teepee-shaped portable blind to look like a small spruce tree. After finished, it will take weeks of weathering in my back yard to get rid of fabric & paint odors. I also need to rig up a two-piece metal support pole with adjustable straps for my deer camp woodstove chimney and order two 4-foot chimney sections and one elbow, Yes, I’m thinking with a grin, it’s definitely time to begin getting jobs like these crossed off my latest deer hunting to-do list.

How about you? Do you have a list? If you do, perhaps you have added several new items to your list after reading my many books, magazine articles and blogs and/or after viewing my recent, very popular buck and black bear hunting seminars on YouTube (well more than a million minutes of hunters watching them thus far). If you have, by now you should be thinking it’s finally time to do whatever is necessary to become a hunter skilled and knowledgeable enough to regularly see and take mature bucks, beginning this fall. To fulfill this goal, you’ve probably also been thinking you should order an autographed copy of my new Whitetail Hunters Almanac, 10th Edition soon. There’s a lot to learn from this unique and enormous book in the time remaining before your next hunting season begins, including how to use the six new fair chase stand hunting methods that enabled my three sons and I to take 101 mature bucks since 1990 on public land—evolved from hunting-related, scientifically-based, year-round field research with wild deer beginning in the early 1960s, like no one else has ever done before. If you order this book from my website, drnordbergondeerhunting.com (click on “store”), you will receive a FREE autographed copy of your choice of a previously published, yet available Whitetail hunters Almanac (while they last), each covering different subjects. I strongly urge you to select the 4th Edition, a guide to the many different visual signs made by white-tailed deer. To become a regularly successful buck hunter, one of your necessary prerequisites is learning how to recognize hunting values and information provided by a considerable number of deer signs.

Minnesota Gray Wolves: Endangered for a New and Different Reason

Few Americans know much about the lives of Minnesota’s gray wolves, yet all seem to have definite ideas about how they should be managed. I am not a wolf manager, but I have spent a great amount of time during my past 29 years among gray wolves inhabiting a ten square-mile area a few miles south of the Ontario Border in Minnesota’s scenic Arrowhead Region. There since 1990, I’ve been studying habits, behavior and range utilization of white-tailed deer and black bears. Based on these studies and earlier whitetail/bear studies in Aitkin County beginning in 1960, I have written about 900 articles for outdoor magazines—Midwest Outdoors during the past 30 years under the byline, “Dr. Nordberg on Deer Hunting”—and seventeen popular books including Whitetail Hunters Almanac, 1st–10th Edition. Arguably, gray wolves have been at a historic high north and south of the Minnesota/Ontario Border for more than two decades. After a year of becoming accustomed to my frequent camping, scouting and sitting in trees among them, I have often observed these awesome predators at very close range. I have thus been able to keep track (via skilled observation methods only) of their numbers and relationships with deer and moose and discover how the Endangered Species Act and protectionists all over America have been adversely affecting their lives.

One characteristic of gray wolves that is commonly overlooked by those who protect them from being hunted is, wolves live on flesh and bones of other animals. They therefore greatly influence numbers of other animals living within their ranges. Their primary prey in Minnesota’s Arrowhead Region are white-tailed deer and moose (not many moose when less dangerous deer are plentiful). There was a time when a certain biological axiom was well known and understood about predators and their prey, namely, “when predator numbers are high, prey numbers are low and vise versa.” Without sound management by humans, ups and downs of predators and their prey tend to be cyclic and extreme. When predators have become so numerous that surviving numbers of their prey animals have become too few to provide adequate food, the predators bear fewer young, if any, and inevitably begin to die in great numbers from starvation and related diseases.

Many politicians in Minnesota have recently come to the conclusion that because opportunities to see gray wolves living in our state would be a great tourist attraction, future wolf hunting (after federal delisting) should be banned. Ironically, though most Americans become enraged upon discovering overabundant cattle, horses, dogs and cats suffering from a lack of adequate food, they think nothing of subjecting gray wolves to this same terrible fate. To be fair, most Americans do not realize the protection provided wolves by the Endangered Species Act since 1974 and by those in government who insist wolves should not be hunted have allowed the gray wolves of our Arrowhead Region to become so numerous that they have been finding it more and more difficult to find adequate food. But, because gray wolves (like black bears and foxes) are rarely seen even where very numerous, most Americans do not realize this has been happening.

Some Americans do realize what has been happening in Minnesota’s Arrowhead Region as a result of gray wolves being allowed o become overabundant, namely, residents of this area and those who have hunted deer there for many years. These Minnesotans have long been disgruntled about the increasing depredation of farm livestock, wolves showing up in yards in urban areas, wolves killing and eating pet dogs and cats, wolves lurking near rural school bus stops and chronically low deer numbers. The inability of Arrowhead whitetails to recover to 1950s and early-1960s numbers despite widespread logging has long been a subject for heated discussions in this region. Before the severe winters of the mid-1960s when up to 90% of whitetails perished in Cook md Lake Counties (with somewhat lesser percentages elsewhere across northern Minnesota), there were as many as 22 deer per square mile in the Arrowhead Region, including where I study whitetails today. Deer in my study area have never numbered more than 8–11 per square mile between 1990 and 2016. Though my family and I have personally limited the number of deer we have harvested to four mature bucks per firearm hunting season, the deer population there eventually fell to a mere five per square mile in 2017. Deer harvests by hunters are not the reason. Only about one deer has been harvested by licensed hunters per ten square miles in this region for several years.

Like wolf packs elsewhere, studies suggest the wolf pack of my study area—made up of related wolves that typically come together about November eighth each year to hunt deer cooperatively until snow melts in spring—probably kills only about one adult deer per week in their vast hunting range, about 100 square miles in size. However, the mated pair that dens in my study area has killed three of four fawns between late May and early November annually. This was made evident by personal observations of fawns being killed by wolves, the fact that from 1990 through 2018 almost all wolf scats found in this area contained deer hair, unstained and unworn fawn teeth and fawn-sized dewclaws and hoofs between late May and early November and the fact that there has only been about one surviving fawn per two or more mature does in this area after November first each year, even after most mature does had given birth to twin fawns following mild to moderate winters. Significant numbers of deer of all ages have perished in this region during some severe winters since 1990, but fawn depredations by wolves is the principal reason whitetails of my study area have never been able to recover even close to numbers that were common during the 1950s and early 1960s. I am not sure whether the great number of fawns being killed simply reflects the fact that fawns are easier prey or it is a consequence of chronically low numbers of all whitetails.

During this same period, moose numbers in my study area fell from about three per square mile in 1990 to less than one per square mile in 2017. Though brain worms carried by whitetails (not fatal to deer) have been blamed for the demise of Minnesota moose, similar reductions of moose have occurred throughout North American where there are no brain worm infected deer (more likely related to global warming). I have personally witnessed wolves pursuing moose from calves to full-grown bulls in my study area and in Cook County and have found parts of recently killed moose with wolf tracks about them many times since 1990. Wolf depredation of much larger, more dangerous moose by Arrowhead wolves today is likely a consequence of chronically low deer numbers, caused by chronically overabundant wolves.

A number of other changes or consequences attributable to an overabundance of wolves have also been observed in my study area since 1990. I grew up in Aitkin County where there have always been gray wolves (then called timberwolves), made evident by their tracks, droppings, howls and rare sightings. They were not often seen back then because they hunted primarily at night and deer were plentiful. Today, the two mated wolves of my study area, which hunt singly, and the related wolves that join them to form packs in November, are often seen and/or heard excitedly howling while pursuing deer or moose during daylight hours, including midday. Last November, their tracks were freshly made during daylight hours about our tent deer camp (while we were away hunting) almost daily for two weeks, likely attracted there by scents of bucks we had taken. Previously, this only happened at night, twice accompanied by noisy howling within twenty yards of bucks hung behind our tent. In recent years, these wolves have commonly keyed on our gunshots, quickly consuming deer entrails left behind after we began dragging deer to camp. Obviously, nighttime hours no longer provide our Arrowhead wolves with enough opportunities to kill adequate numbers of vulnerable (catchable) deer. Healthy mature whitetails can run as fast or faster than gray wolves and in forest habitat they repeatedly leap over obstacles that soon discourage pursuit by wolves. Our gray wolves must therefore key on deer made slow for some reason—deer that are very young or old, wounded, sick, starving, slowed by deep snow or made to fall on slippery lake ice in winter. Ordinarily, gray wolves are only successful at killing mature whitetails in one of five attempts, and today too few of such opportunities occur at night.

In the early 1990s, the wolf pack of my study area typically consisted of a grizzled-black alpha male, a buckskin-colored alpha female, 3-4 other mature wolves with tawny legs and muzzles and two half-grown pups. Since 2005, our pack has never included more than four mature wolves and no pups—strong signs of inadequate nourishment (inadequate vulnerable deer) during previous winters. Our entire original pack did not survive the winter of 1992-93, early deep snow likely contributing to fatal starvation. They were replaced by a new alpha pair and new members of their pack the following year. This second set of wolves has inhabited my study area ever since.

In 1990, only one group of wolves was heard howling at sunset about two miles northwest of my camp. By 2010, three additional groups of wolves were regularly heard howling at sunset at more distant sites east, south and southwest of my camp—meaning wolf numbers had quadrupled in this area between 1990 and 2010.

The unprecedented spread of gray wolves from our Arrowhead Region to the Dakotas, Iowa, Wisconsin and Upper Michigan provides the most convincing evidence our Arrowhead wolves are overabundant. Mature wolves with established ranges are known to drive off or kill other wolves that dare invade their ranges. This is the reason young wolves searching for new ranges of their own and likely some wolves that have migrated south from wolf-crowded Ontario have been forced to greatly expand their geographic range, in most cases ending up where they are not welcome. This continuing expansion means there is no room for additional wolves in northeastern Minnesota.

For the sake of our Arrowhead gray wolves, therefore, something must be done to reduce and control their numbers. The best and most humane way to restore a healthy and flourishing ratio of our long overabundant gray wolves with their long dwindling natural prey in an area most suitable for wolves, our Arrowhead Region, is allow our well qualified MDNR big game managers to reduce wolf numbers there until there is an equally healthy and flourishing number of deer throughout this region—ideally about fifteen deer per forested square mile. This would be a simple means of determining when numbers of very difficult to count gray wolves are finally at an ideal, ecologically balanced ratio with their prey. After 45 years of allowing our wolves to become overabundant, wolves, deer and moose endlessly made to suffer the consequences, banning wolf hunting, the most practical and humane means of reducing wolf numbers quickly and with great control, would only make matters worse for our Arrowhead wolves, deer and moose. It’s time our widely revered, over-protected wolves and their equally revered prey are finally rewarded with sound management. I know Arrowhead residents and Zone 1 Minnesota deer hunters would enthusiastically welcome this as well.